The Fairfield Local Board of Education voted 4-1 Monday to reopen district schools for the 2020-21 school year on a normal schedule beginning Monday, Aug. 17.
Under this plan, all Fairfield students will attend school in-person five days a week.
Other plans superintendent Tim Dettwiller presented included a temporary “blended” schedule — under which students would have been separated into two separate groups, A and B, and attended school in-person two days each week, alternating between the groups, with three days of virtual learning until Sept. 21 so long as there were no spikes in COVID-19 cases — and a delayed start date of Sept. 21.
Dettwiller recommended the temporary “blended” schedule due to concerns with placing all Fairfield students on the same campus and said that such a schedule would allow students more space to distance themselves.
According to Dettwiller, a task force met for three months to research and create the potential reopening plans.
Local parents who attended the meeting and spoke during the public participation portion of the meeting expressed concern that their children would not receive the educational support and stability they need if the district were to incorporate a virtual learning aspect for all students this school year. Parents were especially concerned for students enrolled in individualized education programs (IEPs) and foster children.
The district is offering full virtual learning options for those who are interested. Seventy-seven people expressed interest via a survey about full virtual options, Dettwiller said.
Before entering their executive session, board members voiced their perspectives on the potential reopening plans and the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Board member John Welling expressed his support of a “soft start.”
“We took this organization, which is a fairly large organization, and just stopped it. There was no ramp down, there was no casual adjustment to schedule — we just stopped it,” Welling said. “One of the reasons I’m supporting this soft start is because of the hard stop. We don’t know what damage we’ve done, not only to the students — we don’t know where they’re at. … The other thing we don’t know: we don’t know the health of the organization. You can tell the teachers and all the staff to come back day one — we have no idea who’s going to show up, and we don’t know what condition they’re in, where their minds are at. One of the reasons I promote the soft start is to find that kind of stuff out. It gives us a little bit of breathing room to discover the health of the organization in its entirety and gives us a chance to react and recover.”
Board member Ron Friend expressed disappointment.
“I’ve been on this board for more than one year — this probably will be the most difficult decision that I can remember making in a long, long time,” Friend said. “I have some real issues with it because I didn’t think we should’ve shut down to begin with. I’m a little disappointed that I can go buy liquor, but my kid can’t go to school, and I can go on and on in that area. I see the wisdom of the four weeks of the [“blended” learning], but how do we know that it’s going to be better Sept. 21 than it is Aug. 17 — we don’t. I made the comment when I talked to Tim [Dettwiller] on the phone a little bit earlier this afternoon: we have let fear control our lives — not faith but fear. We all have to work together to make this thing work. People who are 65 years and older and are … vulnerable with issues — they have to be responsible, and we have to make sure they are or no plan’s going to work.”
Board vice president Shawn Willey offered feedback for forming future committees.
“I’d like to thank the committee that volunteered their time to come in and meet with Tim. A lot of volunteered time went into this, lots of hours. Your input does mean something to us,” Willey said. “My only recommendation the next time, I think when we have something like this, I think we need to bring in some parents to put with that panel as well. Without parents, without their kids — we don’t have a school.”
Board member Dr. Rindy Matthews shared his dilemma.
“The same kids are at the same places — that’s my dilemma with all this,” Matthews said. “So we have the same kids, all summer, who have played baseball games with each other, and I know I’ve gone to them and watched them too, and social distancing is just a matter of imaginary lines because we’re not really sure. I look at you guys here, and I see people sitting together who are not in the same family and probably didn’t come in the same car. Did you eat off the same plate tonight? That’s what, really, we’re trying to say we’re going to keep these kids from doing, and we’re not. There are a lot of precautions the school has put in, a lot of CDC stuff, a lot of stuff that the county says we have to do. At night, you could have a sleepover for one night that was from an A group into a B group, and everything that you did all day long — all that you did as the teachers all day long, everything that we can do to take care of your children the very best we can — is all out the window.”
Matthews added that “a lot of us” do not understand the role masks play and ensuring that students follow guidelines, such as keeping masks on, will be difficult.
Board president James Craycraft expressed faith.
“When I first came in Friday to review the agenda, I was 100 percent sure that we were going to start back to school full-time, bring in all the kids. Personally, I don’t have fear of the virus. But then after coming in and seeing the amount of time and effort that our staff and administration put in to trying to get us to restart in a plan that they felt was best for our students — it changes the whole outlook,” Craycraft said. “They did do a lot of homework to get this presentation to us, to make this work. I know we are a unique district here, and I know when we look at what all the other schools are doing, we’ve never really been a district to follow. We’ve always, a majority of the time, done things a little different, and it’s always worked in the best interest of our students and our kids and our district.”
After the vote which decided the reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year, board members stressed that they did not lightly make the decision to reopen Fairfield schools on a normal schedule. Each board member stated he appreciated the task force’s work to create the reopening plans.
After the meeting, Dettwiller told The Times-Gazette, “No matter what was decided tonight, we’ll make it work, and we’ll make it as safe as we possibly can. There was no wrong answer tonight; there’s no right answer. We just want to make it as safe as we can.”
School board members also voted unanimously to push back the first day of classes to Aug. 17. Previously, classes were set to begin on Aug. 14, Dettwiller said.
Dettwiller also said the district is requiring all students who ride buses to wear masks for the duration of the bus ride.
The district will not require, but strongly encourage, students to wear masks while at school, Dettwiller said. However, school employees must wear masks or face shields.
When the school year resumes, Dettwiller said there will be Plexiglas screens around bus drivers’ seats as well as devices at entrances that quickly check a person’s temperature using a sensor and declare them “safe” or not compared to the 100.4-degree baseline created by the CDC. These devices also double as hand-sanitizing stations.
Students with temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees will go to the nurse’s office and will be sent home. The student will then be referred to the health department, which will conduct necessary contact-tracing.
Dettwiller told The Times-Gazette Monday that the district will not offer awards for students’ perfect attendance during the 2020-21 school year, which the Highland County Health Department recommended in its guidelines for schools.
The health department’s guidelines can be viewed at www.highlandcountyhealth.org/blog/2020/7/16/highland-county-covid-19-school-guidance.
Other items discussed during Monday’s school board meeting included a list of substitute teachers for the 2020-21 school year, which Dettwiller noted was half the number of substitutes available to the district during the 2019-20 school year.
“I do believe that’s indicative of concerns folks have with returning to teach in schools,” Dettwiller said.
For more information, visit www.fairfieldlocal.org, or the “Fairfield Local Schools” Facebook page.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.